A brief history of the popsicle test

Children and adults in a popsicle storeHow do you measure the child-friendliness of a neighbourhood? Here’s one test. Would you, as a parent of an 8-year-old child living in that neighbourhood, let your child make their own way to a shop and buy a popsicle (or any variety of ice-cream) – and could your child get the frozen treat back home before it melted?

It’s an idea I mentioned in passing a couple of months ago, in my post announcing my visit to Australia, after Lenore Skenazy had picked up on it in her free range kids blog. I really like the concept. It neatly captures the key factors that shape children’s experiences of their neighbourhood – accessibility of shops and facilities, safety, walking/cycling options, parental attitudes – in a simple, easy-to-picture scenario.

So I was pleased to discover, on an American urbanism website Place Shakers, an account of the origins of the popsicle test (see the comments as well as the post). Turns out it was promoted by some serious urbanists for a while back in the 90s.

Like the post’s author Scott Doyon, I am struck by the way that this simple rule-of-thumb went just a little bit viral, thanks to Lenore and then the hugely popular Boing Boing website. The test elegantly fleshes out what advocates like me are getting at when we use abstract phrases like ‘child-friendly community’. It also highlights that making places more child-friendly is first and foremost a job for planners and politicians, not parents.

What do you think of the popsicle test? Could you use it in your work? How would your neighbourhood fare?

11 responses to “A brief history of the popsicle test

  1. Tim, I’m pleased to say that in my child-friendly neighbourhood, for some children at least, the popsicle test would get a respectable pass mark. Yes there are still those parents that are not yet ready to let their children walk on their own to school or the shops but I do see enough children, aged roughly 10-12 yrs, out and about on their own to believe the situation is slowly getting better. Hopefully as the more risk-averse parents see other children having more freedom (and I suspect they will eventually get nagged by their own children to let them go, as if the walk to the shops is as important as this year’s must-buy Christmas toy) then they too will let their children go, perhaps with distance and time limits at first.
    The design of my `urban village’ certainly helps in that respect.

    Your article brought back my own childhood memories of my uncle sending me at the age of ten, circa 1971, up the road to the corner shop to buy him his papers for his roll-up cigarettes. I’d already walked, run or cycled the mile and a bit to his house, crossing plenty of busy roads, on my own.

    And on this theme – I saw one of the Loose Women on TV one lunchtime recently saying that it would be awful if a child reached the age of 14 still not having full freedom.
    Certainly by age 10 I believe children should have limited (perhaps a mile or two depending on local circumstances) local independence and by age 12 they should be able to get to town, school and the swimming pool (2-3 miles) and back on their own or with friends. I suppose there will always be a few exceptions but for the vast majority of children that’s how it needs to be.

  2. Interesting point and really links in with my fascination with the slippery term child-friendly that I have explored through a UK versus a Spanish lens. It was also a useful exercise to think about this test in relation to my own children. We moved from London to Cheltenham when they were younger – I would not have been comfortable with them the same freedom where I lived in London that I was able to give them in Cheltenham (mainly because of traffic issues rather than ‘stranger danger’ ones).

  3. Sounds a little like Arthur Battram’s ‘Fallen Bicycle Index’ as a measure child-friendliness and free-range use of local space. I like.

  4. Thanks Tim,

    Not sure how I’ll work it in but be assured it will appear in some future article! Possibly inspired and in response to Helen Guldberg’s excellent ‘Reclaiming Childhood’.


  5. Hi Tim,

    Marc has namechecked me – thanks Marc.

    The PBI or ‘Pink Bicycle Indicator’ is one of (what I consider to be) my key ideas, first presented in a workshop at the Play Wales ‘Spirit of Adventure Play conference in 2007, PDF available on request.

    (Marc has misremembered it as ‘Fallen Bicycle Index’, which captures only part of the idea – the bicycle is abandoned by its owner in the street. I think I mentioned the PBI in my presentation to PlayScotland, when you and I and Sue Palmer shared the stage in 2008?)

    The PBI: my contention is that when a small pink bicycle (there are very few large pink bicycles) of the kind favoured by parents for 6 year old girls, is spotted lying on its side on a pavement, it tells us many lovely things. It tells us things like:

    • the owner is a young female child, between 5 and 8 years of age,
    • who is allowed out on a bicycle in that street without adult supervision.
    • the area is a low street crime area.

    I haven’t developed a crisp academic description of the PBI, so let me just say that my proposed application is limited to housing areas. A better name might be something like ‘PBOPCTHI’, for
    ‘Pink Bicycle On Pavement Close To Housing Indicator’.

    The key point can be summed up like this: if I were a dad with a young family, looking move to somewhere child-friendly (and therefore human- friendly), and I spotted a PB, that area would immediately jump to the top of my list.

    Sure we can disagree about individual PB sightings – maybe it was a stolen bike abandoned by a villain, maybe a parent rushed in to answer the phone and forgot to bring it in, but I think my point still stands. The PBI isn’t the only indicator, but it covers a heck of a lot.

    And notice the overwhelming advantages the PBI has over other indicators:

    • it doesn’t involve observing children in the street, an activity widely viewed as suspicious by nearby adults, sometimes leading to threats of violence with or without the calling of police
    • it is quick – it doesn’t involve hours and hours of observations
    • it is easy to capture and document- a photo of the bike and part of the surrounding area, geo-tagged on your smartphone will do the job in a few seconds
    • parents ‘get’ it – it goes straight to their perceptions of their children’s safety outside the home
    • it challenges comfortable preconceptions: ‘experts’ are often perturbed by it – those playworkers in my workshop really didn’t like the implication that their AP was in an area were younger children were not freely playing out and was therefore not meeting the majority of play needs in the area.

    To recap the background briefly: in environmental sciences we have the notion of ‘indicator species’. One such is the skylark. If you want to measure the ‘health’ of a field, say, you could run batteries of tests on the soil, – expensive lab tests, bug and microbug counts and so on, or you could simply look at how many skylarks nest on the site. Skylarks only nest in areas with high biodiversity, free from chemical residues from pesticides and the like. And the skylark is not just an indicator species, it is a ‘super indicator species’ – one species acting as a proxy for many species. The reason being that skylark’s diet is specialised to a narrow range of relatively rare insects and plants which will not be found in fields that have been recently sprayed.

    {The notion of proxies is important here. Respected and common-place proxies should always be examined with suspicion – such as the use of GDP to measure ‘prosperity’ – a well-worn example these days. Most proxies will be less than totally satisfactory, depending on your viewpoint or agenda. Two examples of concern to the play field are the Tellus survey used by Ofsted, and the ONS’ well-being indicators (currently out to consultation until Jan 23rd). My personal view is that both are unfit for purpose. Tellus suffers from a glaring over-reliance on a proxy: if I recall correctly, the answers to questions put to children aged 10-13 in a classroom by teachers, are used to gather data on the views of children aged 7-13 on a range of topics including outdoor activities out of school (I don’t think play is mentioned specifically). Just because a paper-based methodology is deemed unsuitable for gathering data on 7-9 year olds is no reason to not even make the attempt to gather their views! I won’t labour the point about the problems of identifying children’s needs via ‘consultation’ here, the point is – beware of proxies.}

    So the PBI, like your later broader notion of ‘the child as indicator species’, is a ‘super indicator’ of – well, I coined the term’ ludodiversity’ semi-humourously, in order to make a point to adventure playworkers about the narrowness of their provision in relation to the majority of unmet play needs in their neighbourhood, but more generally, I would describe the PBI as an indicator of the ‘child-friendliness of area of housing’. A PB in the middle of a school playing field is not likely to be an indicator of child-friendliness, that would more likely be evidence of petty theft.

    What I like about these kinds of indicators is both their ‘attractive graspability’ and their implicit world-view, by which I mean the notion that if somewhere is child-friendly it is also likely to be older people-friendly, people with disabilities-friendly and so on. Hospitable for humans. A habitable habitat.

    People will keep repeating ‘children are our future’ – I do wish they would stop. Maybe they could start saying something like ‘children are the measure of our present humanity’, instead.

  6. Arthur – thanks for this thoughtful contribution. I support your message about the need for caution around indicators (and indeed I briefly discuss the idea of proxy measures in Sowing the Seeds). I also like the PBI – as you say, spotting a PB in a neighbourhood is highly likely to say a great deal about that area’s child-friendliness. My only criticism of it is that, as an indicator, it may underdetermine. I reckon there are plenty of neighbourhoods, and plenty of times of the day/year, where no PB is to be found, but where that neighbourhood is, by any measure, child-friendly. But it certainly deserves to be considered as one of a number of useful ‘play traces.’ [Footnote: I think Penny Wilson of Play Association Tower Hamlets introduced this valuable term to me.]

  7. Thank you for your kind words, Tim.

    This is a fascinating topic, and thank you for evoking my thinking here. I hope we can continue this.

    Can I take issue a little? You say: “I reckon there are plenty of neighbourhoods, and plenty of times of the day/year, where no PB is to be found, but where that neighbourhood is, by any measure, child-friendly.”

    Just a general preamblish point – my main purpose in proposing the PBI was to stimulate thinking about child-friendliness in environments. It’s not so much a metric, more a stimulus to thinking.

    I wasn’t seriously proposing its adoption, at least not without rigourous testing and consideration alongside other metrics. When I have used it in discussion, it rapidly brings out the deeper issues about play provision (I’m talking about in discussions with playworkers [and informally with parents]; I haven’t used it with residents groups or planners or other folks yet. Having said that, I really do think it makes a very powerful metric.

    I didn’t talk previously about the nature of the ‘super-ness’ of my ‘skylark’ indicator versus the ‘canary’ type, so I will say a little more here. Essentially, the ‘skylark’ indicator (as I call it) is special because it is a complex, or multivariate, (if that’s the right jargon) indicator – it covers many inter-related concerns. Contrast it with a simple, univariate indicator, such as that used historically in mining, the canary. If the canary is dead, the air is not safe to breathe. If the canary is alive, it tells you nothing else about the environment other than the air is not dangerous: the roof might still cave in, there may be monsters lurking and so on. But a skylark-indicator tells you many things, and it doesn’t kill small birds into the bargain.

    I think that focussing on skylark-type rather than canary-type indicators is the way to go. Using only canary-type indicators often involves monitoring a small flock. Not very elegant. My contention is that the general focus on skylarks rather than canaries is more important than whether my specific PB is the right one to use or not.

    There’s also a point about the measurement of qualities rather than quantity, which some scientists are beginning to explore, harking back to Goethe. My understandings of these critiques of quantitative measures lead me to be distrustful of any scheme for ‘Quality’ (however well-intentioned, including examples like PQASSO or Quality in Play). I suspect that skylark indicators transcend these limitations in some way, but I have yet to articulate this clearly. What I’m getting at is that skylark indicators may allow us to measure quality/qualities in a holistic way, avoiding the dumbing-down that seems inevitable with numerical quantitative tools. I need to think about this and discuss it a lot more, I merely have a hunch at the moment.

    Another unexamined issue is that of the mindset of the tool creator and that of the user. As has been observed in another domain, in a critique of software design and usability, all computer programs have the mindset of the creators built in to them, usually invisibly. We can easily get a flavour of this by imagining the sort of ‘typical’ end-user that the programmers had in mind. Then, when the tool is deployed, the mindset of an actual user comes into play, as they make observations and attempt to shoehorn messy reality into the multiple-choice boxes.

    (The advocates of children’s play have mostly negative experiences of surveys and consultations – if there is a box marked ‘other, please state’ that’s the one we go for. Often it just says ‘other’, which leads to the suspicion that those responses will effectively be discarded, or if there is no ‘other’ box at all, we just glare impotently, effectively disenfranchised by the views of the survey-maker. Even when there is an ‘other, please state’ box, the feeling that our narrative responses won’t make it through the sieve of the marking scheme remains.)

    I personally think that PBI holds up very well as an indicator, even though that was not my main concern in proposing it.

    Now, I’m finding your response very puzzling – I think I disagree with you when you say: “I reckon there are plenty of neighbourhoods, and plenty of times of the day/year, where no PB is to be found, but where that neighbourhood is, by any measure, child-friendly.”

    Allow me to try to explain somewhat.

    Obviously there would need to be some sort of protocol in place in order to use PBI effectively. Let’s assume a number of things – that the area does have young children living in it, that the observations are made during typical ‘play times’ and so on; I hope that’s reasonable so far. I’m now going to ask, somewhat pompously (sorry), some questions which I have numbered to assist referencing:

    Question 1:
    If we never see a PB, or similar abandoned toys on the pavement, why is it not reasonable to conclude that children don’t play out in that street, or got for sweets to the corner shop, or whatever?

    Question 2:
    How would a street with no PBs, no playtraces, be considered child-friendly?

    Question 3:
    What other metrics are you suggesting? You say ‘by any measure’ but which measures?

    BTW, I’m assuming you meant ‘undermine’ in your reply, but I’m not sure what the PBI might undermine.

    Question 4: what might the use of the PBI undermine?

    As I said, thank you for evoking my thinking here. I hope we can continue this exploration.

    Best wishes

  8. Embarrassingly, I find I am writing on your blog and copying my writings to my own blog, rather than writing on my own blog and linking here. I will try to stamp out this emerging bad habit.

    And, just in case I have written anything else relevant:


    When you visit, the easiest way to find stuff is to use the tag cloud on right to find relevant articles by clicking on a tag – this will display all the articles tagged with that tag. It is tagtastic.

  9. Arthur – very belated thanks again – and thanks for pointing me to your blog. I’m checking it out already. I have edited your link, as it didn’t work. On the substantive points above – I won’t add too much more. Just to say what I like about the popsicle test is that as proxies go, it’s pretty good – I can almost imagine it being used more-or-less as is, and getting quite close to what we’re after.
    There is a wider challenge, of course, which is how to promote thoughtful decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. David Ball introduced me to the term ‘managerial proceduralism’ to describe the kind of tickbox mechanistic approach that is so beloved of the public sector, and so problematic. Moving beyond this is crucial, it seems to me (which is why I gave a little cheer when Prof Eileen Munro’s Government-sponsored review of social work was published last year).

  10. Phew! In the nick of Tim!

    Typo intended – I was just about to email you to pick up on the points I made above, when you replied, as you say, belatedly. Thanks.

    This reply area isn’t the place for an extended (some might say, nerdly) debate on the finer points of ‘play traces’ so I will email you – some might say it’s a bit late for that.

    I agree, which is why I now wish to travel back in time, remove those two long pieces I stuck above here and email them instead.

    Me too, re Munro report.

  11. Pingback: Is Calgary ready for child-friendly urban planning? | Rethinking Childhood

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